The spies that knew too much about Facebook's advertising network

Despite transparency push, the social network still scorns ad data aggregators

spy

Analysis Facebook says it intends to make its advertising more transparent, but its efforts to prevent other companies from doing as much is keeping its ad ecosystem opaque.

In the course of its ongoing policy enforcement, the social ad giant has pressured several startups that provide data about the ads running on Facebook Pages and other websites – sometimes referred to ad analytics tools or ad spy services – to shut down.

In the past two years, sites like Adicted.io, BigBigAds.com, GameOver.Ninja, GoCompass.co, SpyAds.co, and WhichAdsWork.com have closed their doors, and not by choice.

"We want to thank you for your support, but unfortunately we have been forced to close our service permanently," explains a notice on BigBigAds.com that appeared last December.

Intelligence

Ad spy services gather data about online ad campaigns, often those run by competitors, and aggregate it as a source of business intelligence. Those buying ads (like affiliate marketers who get commissions from effective ads or sales that follow) can use this information to copy successful campaigns for their own benefit. That's the hope at least.

But Facebook sees these sites as scofflaws rather than sources of marketing illumination.

Facebook's policy enforcement hasn't affected every player in the market. Similar sites, like AdFox.io and PowerAdSpy.com, continue to operate. But if they're breaking Facebook's rules, it may only be a matter of time before the cease-and-desist notice arrives.

The Register asked representatives from some of these websites to discuss what happened but those who responded declined, citing legal concerns.

A marketing professional who corresponded with The Register and asked not to be named speculated that Facebook wants to hide historical ad data, as a way to avoid being held accountable for ads.

"Why force [ad spy sites] to stop operating instead of asking them to cooperate?" the marketer said, noting that some of these services made it easier to identify scam ads used to victimize Facebook users.

Scraping

Facebook declined to comment on specific cases but a spokesperson confirmed to The Register that some of these sites were scraping Facebook data from websites and apps and then charging clients for access to that data, in violation of the social network's policies.

Facebook is not alone in wanting to keep others' data to itself. In 2016 LinkedIn sued 100 unnamed individuals for harvesting user profiles with bots. One of those plaintiffs, HiQ, pushed back with a counter-suit and last year, a judge said LinkedIn had to allow the scraping of public data. The case is currently under appeal.

In an email to The Register, Augustine Fou, a cybersecurity and ad fraud researcher who runs ad consultancy Marketing Science, speculated that the shuttered sites likely relied on fake accounts maintained by botnets to scrape ad data, since Facebook ads are shown to logged in accounts.

Fou said he agreed with Facebook's decision to shut the sites down.

"I think the recent [Cambridge Analytica] data scandal has given them more reason to act more aggressively," he said. "Advertisers can use simple Facebook reporting to see how their ads worked. They don't need third-party scrapers like this.

But of course, Facebook opponents would be quick to blame them for not allowing third-party tracking, measurement, etc. And this fits with their worldview that Facebook is evil and is exercising undue market power." ®




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